Reading through the latest “research” from the so-called Taxpayer’s Alliance, the measures it proposes seem initially to be reasonable, attractive even, until they are subjected to a little stress testing. First of these is the argument for lowering the poverty line.
At present, the definition of poverty is 60% of median income. The TPA is urging that this be reduced to 50%. Together with this, they also lay out a new definition of household income, which excludes any benefit payments, as this is considered “circular and seriously misleading”, or put more directly, enables that median to be set lower.
Why reduce the poverty level? One argument put forward in the report is that this is how it used to be done. Along, no doubt, with a road network without motorways, smogs, poor food hygiene, a far higher cost of travel and therefore less mobility, appalling safety standards at work, and black and white television available in 405 line form only.
Here, it is useful to have the insights of one of the report’s authors: the TPA’s so-called “Research Fellow” Mike Denham writes the original “Burning Our Money” blog – under the hilariously original pseudonym of Wat Tyler – and through this medium, he allows us to get a flavour, however unpalatable, of the underlying philosophy.
Denham has argued that the poor are not really poor after all. Moreover, he has asserted that the present definition of relative poverty should be replaced by one of absolute poverty. Clearly, the sight of the less well off owning fridges and washing machines is, to some of the more affluent, distressing. But today’s employers are less forgiving of poor personal hygiene, so the ability to keep body and garments clean is not optional.
Also, I would argue that Denham is out of touch with another reality facing the less prosperous: many of these people have access to a car, for no other reason than that they are unable to get to and from work without one. Most employers expect their workforce to commute by car, a situation that has been exacerbated by the decline of the bus as a means of commuting. A car is no longer the luxury it once was: here, the clock cannot be rolled back.
The definition of poverty has been arrived at, not, as Denham suggests, by the “constant wailing of the poverty lobby”, but through a process of pragmatism and, yes, civilisation. Redefining poverty merely in pursuit of ideological purity, justified by the catch all excuse of “tough choices”, which is more or less what the TPA is urging, is not good enough. Moreover, it isn’t going to happen.
Next, I’ll look at those incentives to get folks back into work.